The Queen’s Cartoonists re-energize animated classics at High Point Theatre

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The Queen's Cartoonists played at High Point Theatre on Sunday. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

A black and white, line-drawn Bambi peacefully eats flowers in a field as musicians on stage play the first notes from Arthur Fiedler’s “William Tell Overture.” Graceful tones from the saxophone lead the tune as Bambi lifts his head before continuing to graze. Suddenly a giant, dinosaur-sized leg enters the screen, stomping poor Bambi into the ground. The end.

“Bambi beats Godzilla” by Marv Newland was just one of several cartoons shown at the Queen’s Cartoonists show at High Point Theatre on Sunday.

The six-piece band — made up of a pianist, three brass musicians, an upright bass player and a drummer — captured the audience by playing live jazz and classical music set to screenings of old and contemporary animation.

“It’s a jazz concert, but it’s a fun concert,” joked Joel Pierson, the band’s pianist, conductor and main on-stage spokesperson. “If you can’t reconcile that, you should leave.”

Soon, other childhood classics like Popeye and Bugs Bunny graced the screen. With each scene, the band perfectly synced with the characters’ animations and emotions, the sax or piano leading the melody while the drums and piccolo plucked out intense chase numbers.

According to the band’s website, the Queen’s Cartoonists formed in 2015 with a mission of “equal parts education, preservation and performance.”

After warming up the crowd with accompaniment for some stop-motion films, the band played a medley of crowd favorites. Tunes from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Batman, Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice and “The Simpsons”melded into each other as the band played. Upbeat, bouncy chords for Pee Wee’s number changed to suspenseful, brooding tones as the Batman logo was projected onto the screen. Just as quickly, the mood shifted and turned whimsical for “What’s This?” from Nightmare Before Christmas. The band played swiftly and with such precision that as they progressed, images from each of the films and TV shows were projected into the minds of those listening, despite there not being any visual component on screen besides the titles.

The crowd clapped and exclaimed as they recognized each section.

While most audience members grew up with the animations in the ’50s and ’60s, there were a few kids in attendance too.

Brother and sister Henry and Charlotte Howes bounced excitedly in their chairs as they watched the band and the animation on screen.

“It’s kinda funny,” said Charlotte, who wore a gray sweatshirt with unicorns on it.

“It never gets old,” said their mom, Nadine. She grew up watching Popeye and other cartoons as a kid. That love for animation was passed down to her children, she says. Both Henry and Charlotte’s favorite cartoons are still the classics — Looney Tunes.

Right before the intermission, the band demonstrated its full prowess during an accompaniment of the Van Beuren Studio’s “Haunted Ship” by playing every note and sound effect for the film. In it, a black-and-white dog and cat — drawn in the style of early, Steamboat Willie-era Mickey Mouse — crash their plane into the ocean and find their way onto a haunted ship where they encounter a cast of zany characters.

The band utilized a full range of quirky instruments including a slide whistle, recorder, bells and even provided goofy vocals for the cat.

An airplane’s pipes become a xylophone, brought to life by the plucky sounds of the piano while a string of bells imitate jangling chains. As the cat and dog run into eels, rays and even dancing skeletons, each animation is promptly played by the band, including the characters’ terror, emphasized by the sliding whistle. Towards the end of the piece, a lobster dances by clacking its claws, sounded by castanets. The whole picture lasts about seven minutes, with each second energized by the band’s produced sounds.

In between the animations, the band introduced themselves in bizarre and humorous ways like playing music through a straw or blaring the trumpet while riding a bicycle. At one point, the upright bassist danced with his instrument in an awkward, waltzy march.

By taking jazz and classical music and applying it to animated pieces, the Queen’s Cartoonists seamlessly married their goofy sense of humor with musical prowess.

“Jazz doesn’t always have to be serious,” Nadine said. “You can be trained classically but apply it to a variety of stuff.”

Learn more about the Queen’s Cartoonists here.